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How a travel website is keeping us curious in the 21st century

Whether the 18th century British naval captain James Cook was an explorer or an exploiter depends on how we feel about history. Cook is credited as the first to have circumnavigated Antarctica, “discovered” Australia, and successfully controlled scurvy on his ships (using sauerkraut, no less). He was also the first European to reach Hawaii, where the islanders mistook him to be immortal. Later, Cook would meet a gruesome death at their hands.

“His lack of respect was one of the reasons why he was killed in Hawaii,” observes Samir S Patel, 45, editorial director of Atlas Obscura, a US-based travel and media company, which runs a website by the same name. Cook’s story, he says, wasn’t just about a man who stepped off a boat, proclaiming he had found civilisation. “It’s more about a conflict of cultures and one that didn’t go well for the indigenous people involved. There’s actually a richer story here,” says Patel.

The search for a richer, more complex story is what led Atlas Obscura to revisit its website entries on Cook. The entry on the Kealakekua Bay obelisk in Hawaii, which memorialises Cook’s death, now reflects his contentious, and often violent, relationship with the indigenous people. It adds the Hawaiian view of the memorial, as a problematic tribute to a man who invaded the islands and whose presence forever changed Hawaii’s character. Elsewhere in the world, the Cook legacy still lives on with islands named after him or space shuttles, such as Endeavour, named after his ships.

The Cook references are among 700 entries reviewed so far on Atlas Obscura. Its “Places” section has about 21,500 entries contributed by a community of travellers. From dining at a small roadside eatery in Uganda located right on the equator to remnants of the Birdman cult in Chile’s Easter Island, the Atlas is a virtual wunderkammer, with places and objects, foods and sights. Given the user base, the “Places” entries do skew towards North America and Europe, but there are representations from other regions, too. There are 192 “cool, unusual and hidden” entries from India, which include step-wells, forts, temples, mausoleums, and also Cherrapunjee’s double-decker living root bridges, Kolkata’s South Park Street Cemetery, Mumbai’s Antilia, home of Asia’s richest man Mukesh Ambani (Atlas Obscura doesn’t fail to note the criticism that the building has drawn since its construction). The company, founded in 2009 by Joshua Foer and Dylan Thuras, is also known for its food section “Gastro Obscura”, which helps subscribers discover culinary staples and curiosities from across the world.

travel website, hidden histories, Atlas Obscura, Samir Patel, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility in New York. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

“If it’s ‘obscure’, it’s by nature hidden and a lot of places on Atlas have hidden histories,” says Patel, adding, “if it (an entry) surprises us and fills us with wonder, we think it will do the same for our readers”.

But much like Captain Cook, curiosity gets easily mixed with conquest. In the history of the world, the thrill of discovering new lands and civilisations has often been accompanied by gross exploitation. Take the richest men in the world today, each outdoing the other in the race to build space colonies. New ships, same old “explorers”. The ongoing project of updating entries is challenging that, says Patel, “Ultimately travel, by its very nature, is an act of privilege. It is related to class and, if you go back in history, it was even more so. The ability to travel and see the world was in very few hands.” It’s an attempt to make travelling more sensitive to history, which have been suppressed or erased.

It comes at a time when there is a worldwide movement to rewrite the history of celebrated figures, right from toppling statues of Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth II in Canada to dismantling Confederate statues in the US. Recent research into oral histories has revealed that the Maori may have been the first to discover Antarctica, as far back as the seventh century, rather than the Russian explorers credited with the discovery in 1820.

travel website, hidden histories, Atlas Obscura, Samir Patel, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express, indian express newstravel website, hidden histories, Atlas Obscura, Samir Patel, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news Atlas Obscura’s Samir Patel on the roof of Kashan Bazaar in Iran. (Courtesy: Samir Patel)

The process of revisiting entries was always on the agenda in a targeted fashion. But, with the #BlackLivesMatter movement in the US last year, following the killing of an African-American man, George Floyd, a staff member from the audience development team, Rachel Rummel, developed a memo with a clearly defined framework for revisiting the “Places” database to present more complex histories where they might be missing. As the year progressed, more resources were put into it, says Patel. Another staff member, Michelle Cassidy, reviewed posts, to review posts related to the Civil War in the US (1861-65), colonialism, incarceration, sex work and mental health, among other topics.

The revisions aren’t limited to race or colonialism. The entry on Säter Museum of Mental Health in Sweden now gives an idea of what mental health treatment looked like in the early 20th century and how approaches to treatment changed until the hospital’s closure in 1989.

Patel, who lives in New York, had moved to the city for graduate school in 1997. Born to Indian parents who migrated from Ahmedabad, he grew up in the suburb of Strongsville (“a very White place”, he says) in Cleveland, Ohio. Trained as a science journalist, he worked at Archaeology magazine before joining Atlas Obscura in 2017 and becoming its editorial director last year, shortly before COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. Even with two decades in New York, he says, there are still locations he hasn’t seen.

travel website, hidden histories, Atlas Obscura, Samir Patel, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express, indian express newstravel website, hidden histories, Atlas Obscura, Samir Patel, eye 2021, sunday eye, indian express, indian express news James Cook’s obelisk in Kealakekua Bay, Hawaii. (Photo: Getty)

One such personal discovery came about a little after he joined Atlas Obscura. On Obscura Day (on May 6, a now-discontinued event where places in New York opened up to special experiences for people), Patel took his son to a recycling plant by the Brooklyn waterfront called the Sunset Park Material Recovery Facility.“It was like a cathedral of trash,” he says. He recalls it as a hidden piece of infrastructure in New York City, a piece of the world we don’t think about.

In this context, Patel often speaks about Atlas Obscura’s idea that “exploration is for everyone”, that we don’t have to travel far to feel a sense of wonder, that adventure is not out there, but right around the corner, perhaps right in our neighbourhoods, if one is willing to look. It’s an approach that the pandemic has encouraged, as international borders close down unexpectedly or inter-city travel is tougher than ever before. More importantly, people may not take travel for granted and will find ways to make it more meaningful, as meaningful as unearthing hidden histories.

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